Four defining days in January

What role will women's sports play in our country's future?

Hi, friends! Welcome to Power Plays, a no-bullshit newsletter about sexism in sports, written by me, Lindsay Gibbs.

I hope you’re doing well. Personally, the first few weeks of the new year felt more “continued nightmare” than “fresh start,” BUT over the past few days, the brain fog has finally started to slowly lift — which is good, because there are so many exciting and troubling things happening in the women’s sports world, and Power Plays is now officially back and ready to cover it all.

Today, though, I want to take a beat and look back at this pivotal month in the United States through the lens of four specific days — two during the end of Trump’s administration, and two at the beginning of Biden’s — in which the past, present and future of women’s sports and the country were inextricably intertwined. Yes, this is a bit of a way to make up missed newsletters from the past few weeks, but more than that, it’s a chance to really and truly take stock and plan a path forward for our community at large. Essentially, a moment to get on the same page. (My goodness, that’s a convoluted and self-indulgent intro, but stick with me.)

First, though, since it’s been a while, I want to start with a few announcements:

  • THE NWHL MINI-SEASON IS IN ACTION!! I will have an actual newsletter discussing issues surrounding the NWHL’s bubble season (aka the #NDubble) in the next few days, but since I’m running way behind, I wanted to go ahead and give you all the basics:

    The season — which is taking place entirely in Lake Placid, New York — began last weekend and will end this week, on February 5th. Six teams began the season with the intention of playing five regular-season games in eight days, but unfortunately, the Metropolitan Riveters had to withdraw from the competition due to coronavirus concerns. The last day of regular-season play is on Monday evening, and then there will be single-elimination semifinal and championship games on February 4 and 5, respectively. You can watch Monday’s action on Twitch, and then the playoffs will be aired live on NBC Sports Network (!!!!).

    To keep up with the action, the first person you need to follow is Erica Ayala, who can be heard providing commentary on the official NWHL broadcasts. Her women’s hockey podcast, Founding 4, is also required listening. I also highly recommend following Marisa Ingemi’s work on SportsNet and NBC Sports. And, of course, you’re already reading The Ice Garden, yes? If not, please fix immediately.

  • Over at The Black Sportswoman, the great Bria Felicien has compiled a list of 28 Black women athletes who have made sports history. It’s a must-read, and The Black Sportswoman is a must-subscribe, and here is information on how to help the publication financially!

  • I joined The Next’s subscriber-only podcast to discuss ownership structures in the WNBA, and goodness did the conversation make me excited for the season!

    Speaking of The Next, be sure to check out that team’s coverage of Naz Hillmon’s 50-point performance, Tennessee’s tight loss to UConn, and all of the recent ACC madness. Oh, and you’re going to want to follow them for all of the breaking WNBA free agency news. WHICH STARTS NOW!

  • There’s a new women’s soccer podcast I lovingly demand that you add to your rotation: Diaspora United, “a soccer podcast that centers Black women in the global game.” Need I say more? Well, I will: Follow them on twitter, too.

  • Last week was the one-year anniversary of the tragic helicopter crash that killed of Kobe Bryant, Gigi Bryant, Alyssa Altobelli, Payton Chester, and five others. I know the anniversary has been triggering to many in our community for multiple reasons, and so I thought I would simply re-up a couple of Power Plays pieces from this time last year: To truly honor Kobe and Gigi, you have to respect women's basketball and WNBA player Imani McGee-Stafford grapples with Kobe's complicated legacy.

I’ve got a lot more announcements and recommendations, but will spread them out through what I am dubbing Comeback Week here at Power Plays. I suppose I should get to the actual newsletter part of the newsletter before it’s too late!

Okay, friends. Let’s do this.

January 5, 2021: The day before the insurrection

WNBA players helped flip the Senate

When we last left off, we talked about how the activism of WNBA players helped boost Rev. Raphael Warnock’s campaign to oust racist Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler from the U.S. Senate. Well, on January 5 — which, believe it or not, was just a few weeks ago — all of their hard work paid off when Warnock won the election.

By choosing not to engage Loeffler in a war of words last summer, and instead use their voices to elevate and advocate for Warnock, WNBA players expanded the horizons of athlete activism, turning it from something symbolic to something tangible.

I mean, they played a big part in flipping the Senate!

But, while the country’s political future is of course a top priority, it’s important to note that the players’ coordinated support of Warnock might have changed the future of the WNBA, too.

When I spoke with Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams earlier in the month on Burn It All Down, she was confident that we’d seen the last of Loeffler on the WNBA sidelines. A couple of weeks ago, Ramona Shelburne reported for ESPN that Loeffler is indeed on her way out as owner of the Dream; there are up to five bidders who have expressed serious interested, and Loeffler is expected to have absolutely no involvement with the team going forward. Of course, nothing is official until it’s official, but there’s reason to be bullish about the future — not solely because Loeffler will be gone, but rather because of the fact that there are multiple bids, and actual buzz around purchasing a WNBA franchise. (Expansion, anyone?)

Even LeBron James mentioned on Twitter that he was considering putting together an ownership group to buy the team!

By advocating for Warnock and refusing to be used as Loeffler’s political pawns, the Dream and the WNBA as a whole raised their own profile, and for once, mainstream media actually paid attention. The WNBA’s role in getting Warnock elected was covered by outlets such as The Washington Post, Time Magazine, The Guardian, CBS News, The Boston Globe, MSNBC, Slate, CNN, Elle, NBC Sports, among so, so many others.

January 5 showed the power that disciplined, strategic, and unified activism can have. It showed that listening to the athletes of the WNBA, particularly the Black women at the forefront, is the best way forward. It showed that as much as society still tries to marginalize the WNBA player, dismissing them is no longer a viable option; they have discovered their own power and worth, and they’re done waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

January 7, 2021: The day after the insurrection

Medals of dishonor

The high from Warnock’s victory on January 5 didn’t last long. Less than 12 hours after the race was called, a violent mob led by white supremacists incited by President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building, called for the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence, ransacked offices, and hunted for lawmakers to kill. For anyone who has been paying attention since the moment Trump took his escalator ride into autocracy in the summer of 2015, the event wasn’t surprising. But it was still utterly horrifying, and left many casual political observers wondering, “How the fuck did we end up here?”

Well, on Thursday, two of those reasons were on display behind closed doors in the White House: complicity and erasure.

The day after the assault on the Capitol, two female sport trailblazers, Annika Sorenstam and the late Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom award by President Donald Trump. (Gary Player received the award, too, but I’ll let those that cover men’s sports deal with him.)

Zaharias passed away in 1956, and therefore gets a pass for not turning down this honor (though we will revisit her legacy in a minute), so I want to focus in on Sorenstam for a minute. Sorenstam actually decided to attend the event, something even New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who is not exactly known for his strict moral compass, had enough sense to avoid.

If you’re not familiar, Sorenstam is a Swedish-American golfer who retired in 2008 after winning 72 LPGA tournaments, 10 major titles, and eight Player of the Year awards. She is considered by many to be the best female golfer of all time, and in 2003, she made international headline news when she competed against the men in a PGA Tour event and nearly made the cut.

I grew up watching a lot of golf, and remember being absolutely enamored with Sorenstam’s career — how ruthlessly she dominated her competition, how fearlessly she competed against the men, and how subversively she upended gender roles by not taking her husband’s last name and by being the breadwinner. (The media was fascinated by this arrangement in the 1990s, as you can see by this as-told-to article in a 1998 edition of Sports Illustrated entitled, “Pro Husband.”)

Sorenstam remains an involved icon of the sport to this day — her ANNIKA foundation has made a big impact globally for girls and women in golf, and on January 1, she was appointed president of the International Golf Federation.

I don’t list her accomplishments here to excuse anything; in fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s to reiterate how central of a figure she has been in women’s sports and in the world of golf — a world that Trump craves approval from. (In the wake of the insurrection, Trump was reportedly more upset about the 2022 PGA Championship leaving Trump National than he was about his second impeachment.)

Sorenstam could have used this moment to speak out against Trump and the racism and violence and delusion that he inspires from his supporters; her voice matters in the lily-white, conservative world of golf, and it matters to Trump. Instead, she chose cowardice and complicity. She received her “honor” in a ceremony that took place behind closed doors because the President was hiding from the media Sorenstam chose to hide publicly, too; her last tweets are from January 5, when she shared excitement about the upcoming honor during the exact hours people were dying in the riot at the Capitol.

Last week, she competed in the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, where she faced the press, but cravenly dismissed any criticism about receiving the medal from Trump.

“Listen, I share the sadness and the fear with everyone, what happened at the Capitol,” she said, as reported by Beth Ann Nichols at Golfweek. “But I’m not one to look back. I focus on young girls, as you know. Just came back from St. Augustine yesterday, our 13th Annika Invitational. That’s what I’m going to continue to do is open doors, create opportunities for young girls around the world,”

Unfortunately for Sorenstam, there is no way to truly move forward without actually addressing racism, xenophobia, and bigotry of all kinds. Blazing forward without dealing with the past isn’t opening doors for the next generation, it’s hand-picking people to help uphold the hierarchy that already exists. It’s how we got Trump. It’s the epitome of white feminism.

That brings us to the late Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, who posthumously was honored on January 6. Zaharias was a pioneering female athlete in multiple sports — she won two gold medals in track and field at the 1932 Summer Olympics, then became a founding member of the LPGA and won 10 LPGA majors. She broke many barriers in her day, including pitching in MLB exhibition games in 1934 and competing against men on the PGA Tour. (Sorenstam was the next woman to compete in a PGA Tour event, 58 years later.) It’s understandable why she would be honored.

But something was missing in most remembrances of Zaharias — the fact that she was a racist who violently went out of her way to abuse Black women in sports. Here’s an excerpt from Smithsonian Mag, “Sports History Forgot About Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes, Two Black Olympians Who Never Got Their Shot,” which I believed was flagged for me by the great Bria Felicien:

In the lead up to the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Pickett and Stokes were subjected to various abuses. They were kids: 17 and 18, respectively. In Denver, on the train en route to Los Angeles, they were given a separate room near a service area and ate their dinner in their rooms rather than the banquet hall with the rest of the delegation.

As the train continued west toward California, the two women were sleeping in the bunking compartment they shared, Stokes on the top bunk, Pickett on the bottom. One of the most well-known women in sport, Mildred “Babe” Didrikson tossed a pitcher of ice water on the sleeping teammates.

According to Thomas, Didrickson was opposed to having African-American athletes on the team, hence the slight. Pickett confronted Didrikson, the two exchanged words, but no one ever apologized.

In the book A to Z of American Women in Sports, author Paula Edelson reported that once in Los Angeles, “Stokes and Pickett practiced with their team during the day, but they were stranded each night in their dorms as the other runners gathered to eat in the whites-only dining room.”

January 7 showed how many women in sports — especially white, cisgender women in sports — choose not to use their platforms to push for progress in order to maintain their own proximity to power. It showed how legends of women’s sports use their gender and athletic accomplishments as a shield to deflect any and all accountability for their actions. It showed how history has white-washed the legacies of yesterday’s trailblazers, completely erasing the stories of the Black women they trampled over along the way. It showed exactly how we got here, and why, if we’re not careful as a community, we’ll keep coming back time and time again.

January 20, 2021: Inauguration day

An integral part of the show

President Joe Biden’s inauguration day was a momentous day for many reasons: Kamala Harris officially became the first woman, first Black person, and first South Asian person to become vice president of the United States; the 22-year-old Amanda Gorman captivated the nation with her stunning and heart-wrenching poem during the official inauguration ceremony; and J.Lo gave us all official permission to get loud. I loved every moment of it.

But, because I’m me, I was particularly overcome with joy by how many women in sports were included in Biden’s celebration. At times, it felt like a Power Plays newsletter brought to life.

USWNT stars Jessica McDonald, Ali Krieger, Jessica McDonald, and Becky Sauerbrunn narrated a video clip promoting the day; Olympic stars such as Elena Delle Donne, Allyson Felix, and Katie Ledecky participated in the virtual inauguration day parade; and Kim Ng, the first female general manager in MLB history, participated in an official video highlighting inauguration addresses from past presidents.

Most strikingly — sorry to say, but pun intended — Sarah Fuller, the Vanderbilt women’s soccer goalie and football place kicker who became the first woman to play and score in a Power Five college football game last year, actually introduced President Joe Biden (virtually, of course) during the prime-time inauguration celebration, “Celebrating America.”

Friends, that is a huge deal!

It was refreshing to see women in sports so well-represented on the political stage, after four years with a president who didn’t acknowledge the existence of female athletes unless they were publicly gushing about him (Kim Mulkey) or publicly criticizing him (Megan Rapinoe).

It was also incredibly affirming. I obviously know that women’s sports matter, but it at times feels like we are all just screaming that into our DIY echo chamber.

January 20 showed how intertwined the progress of women’s sports are with the progress of society at large. It showed that Fuller nailing a field goal, Ng finally getting her shot as a GM after decades of grinding, the USWNT winning back-to-back World Cups and standing up to Trump along the way, Delle Donne and Felix and Ledecky breaking records and capturing gold medals, are moments that truly help change the world. And it showed that we actually have a president who recognizes that fact, which honestly, feels pretty damn great.

January 21, 2021: Biden’s first full day

TERFs panic over ‘erasing women’

On inauguration day, while the aforementioned ceremonies were taking place, Biden took some time to get down to business and release his first batch of executive orders. One of them was entitled, “Executive Order on Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation.”

This order builds on one of the rare bright spots in 2020: the Supreme Court ruling in Bostock vs. Clayton County, which ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination “because of … sex,” covers discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Biden’s order uses Bostock’s reasoning to mandate that all federal laws prohibit sex discrimination, including Title IX, also protect discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Among other things, the order mandates that transgender children be allowed to use the locker rooms and bathrooms of their gender identity, and participate in the sport of their gender identity.

By the time I woke up on January 21, the first full day of the Biden administration, the news was jam-packed with TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) hitting every panic button in sight, and there were a slew of transphobic and down-right false articles circulating, such as one from the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Joe Biden's First Day Began the End of Girls' Sports.” (No, I will not be linking that.) Within hours, the hashtag #BidenErasesWomen was trending on Twitter.

This fear-mongering is not merely rhetorical. Despite — or, rather, because of — the progress on the federal level, anti-trans bills are popping up in state legislatures all over the country.

According to Chris Mosier, 12 states currently have anti-trans sports bills on the table; the majority of those have been introduced just this month. These bills mirror the harmful “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act” bill that passed in Idaho last year, and a couple of them go even further and require trans children to undergo genital inspections and testosterone checks and chromosome tests in order to play youth sports.

These bills are violent assaults on the basic humanity of trans people, and put their very existence up for debate. It is crucial that everyone in the women’s sports community speaks out against them. Thankfully, some powerful voices are doing just that.

The Women’s Sports Foundation released a statement denouncing all of the headlines about Biden’s supposed demolishment of girls’ sports, saying, “We believe nothing could be further from the truth. There are many real threats to girls’ and women’s access and opportunity in sports; however, this EO is not one of them.” It continued:

The false rhetoric taking hold is a distraction to the real threats to girls and women in sports, such as lack of Title IX understanding and compliance; inequity in compensation, resources, sponsorship and media attention; harassment and abuse of female athletes and women working in sports, the list goes on. These real threats are well known, well documented, yet they have become tolerated. Society pays them sporadic attention at best, with episodic spikes of outrage demanding change. These are issues that can and should be addressed to keep girls’ and women’s sports growing and thriving.

If January 20 — and January 5 and 7, for that matter — showed just how ingrained women’s sports are in the fabric of our culture, January 21 showed how people are weaponizing that connection to discriminate against and demonize the trans community. It showed that the fight for equality in sports is far from over, because forward progress is always met with forceful backlash. It showed that we’ve got a lot of work to do; thankfully, I know this community is up for it.